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New Khao Suey Diplomacy

John Lee

India’s two-decade-old ‘Look East’ policy has enhanced New Delhi’s influence in every major capital in East and Southeast Asia with one notable exception: Burma. But the tide could be turning.

Long considered a country stubbornly entrenched in China’s sphere of authoritarian influence, the military dictatorship in Rangoon has gone out of its way to distance itself from Beijing, convince the region that meaningful political reforms are underway, and reach out to democratic capitals still critical of the regime. This is good news for the Burmese people—a chance for New Delhi to regain lost ground with its neighbour, and confirmation that Chinese authoritarian statecraft is not as impressive as it appears.

Burma remains the most ostracised country in Asia outside North Korea. The US and the EU have imposed robust economic sanctions regime against Burma since the junta’s brutal crackdown on protests in 1988. From 1990s onwards, China emerged as Burma’s most dependable ally — moving well ahead of India in the competition for influence in Rangoon. Indeed, China is now the largest investor and second-largest trading partner of Burma (after Thailand) and the primary supplier of military equipment to the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces). Beijing provides diplomatic and political cover for the Tatmadaw, for example, by consistently vetoing American plans to investigate allegations of civilian repression through UN agencies. Without Chinese economic assistance, the dysfunctional Burmese economy would have probably completely collapsed, endangering the continued rule of the junta. It is no wonder that Burma is sometimes dismissed as a Chinese ‘economic colony’ and even the unofficial 23rd province of China.

When President Thein Sein took office last March, few expected much change from the emergence of a so-called ‘civilian’ government. But as far as its foreign outreach policy is concerned, changes have been significant. The president suspended the $3.6 billion Chinese-funded Myitsone Dam project on the northern mouth of the Irrawaddy River, which was to send 90% of power generated to Yunnan Province in China for the next 50 years. In an unexpected move, Rangoon has welcomed several American senior officials over the past few months. These include secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former presidential candidate John McCain and former vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman.

Significantly, Clinton was granted an audience with Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who is considered by India and the West to be the legitimate leader of Burma on account of her election victory in 1990. Rangoon has approved meetings between Suu Kyi and Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and British foreign secretary William Hague. Importantly, she has been cleared to run for parliamentary elections in April 2012.

To be sure, Burma is of strategic importance to China because it’s superbly positioned above the Andaman Sea, which leads into the shipping chokepoint of the Malacca Straits. Transport routes through Burma will also offer southern Chinese provinces alternatives to relying solely on American patrolled maritime routes through Southeast Asia. But like in African countries such as Zimbabwe, Sudan, Algeria and Nigeria, China is also interested in the resources of its southern neighbour: oil, gas, minerals, timber and hydropower generation.

The majority of Chinese investment is in these sectors, and by State-owned-enterprises (SOE). And as is often the case with Chinese SOE activity in poor countries ruled by authoritarian, corrupt and incompetent regimes, the pact between Beijing and political elites running these regimes offer little by way of economic, employment or social return to local populations.

Slowly but inevitably, Burma’s leaders are discovering that Chinese authoritarian largesse has a price. ‘No strings attached’ economic aid and political cover offered are an extension of Chinese foreign policy and Beijing expects attractive strategic and economic returns. In contrast, the more stringent conditions-based aid preferred by democratic countries and institutions such as the World Bank is beginning to appear more attractive.

New Delhi’s interests in Burma are not always consistent with those belonging to Washington and Brussels. Although committed to democracy domestically, India formally discounts deepening democratic fraternity and values as a pillar of its foreign policy. But New Delhi is now joined with the West in wanting to break the authoritarian nexus and reducing Rangoon’s comprehensive reliance on Beijing. The meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and president Sein last October is promising for bilateral relations but also more evidence that Burma is reaching out to democratic powers in order to find alternative pathways toward further development not based on becoming a de facto ‘Chinese colony’.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that genuinely free and fair elections will soon be seen in Burma. But it should help put to bed the self-defeating argument making the rounds in democratic capitals, including New Delhi, that authoritarian powers like China are far more efficient and successful at statecraft than their democratic rivals.

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